NFL Playoffs: New England Patriots draw rematch with Houston Texans

When the 2012 season began, numerous predictions pegged the New England Patriots as a 15-1 team.  Though lofty, these expectations weren’t all that unreasonable.  The AFC East was thought to be fairly weak, a belief that was confirmed as the season progressed.  The difficult games on the schedule were all in Foxboro with the exception of a trip to Baltimore; the Broncos, Texans, and 49ers all had to play on New England’s turf and terms if they wanted to beat one of the league’s top offenses.

Tom Brady New England Patriots

The offensive line managed it in week 14, but giving Tom Brady time in the pocket will be crucial against a strong Houston defense (AP/ Savoia)

The Patriots’ attack, led by perennial MVP candidate Tom Brady, was perhaps the main reason for the optimism surrounding the club.  Despite last year’s frustrating finish– a second Superbowl loss to the New York Giants– New England’s stock was soaring thanks to  a highly-complex, balanced, and effective offense that could score in chunks.  In fact, the only thing holding the Pats back was the uncertainty surrounding the defense, a unit that was victimized last year for more than 411 yards per game (31st in the NFL).

Week 1 lived up to the hype as the Pats trounced the Titans.  But in week 2 a sputtering offense and missed field goal by Stephen Gostowski led to a 20-18 loss at the hands of the lowly Arizona Cardinals.  Next came a controversial one-point loss in Baltimore, and though the Patriots handled the rematch with Peyton Manning and bested the Broncos, they got sloppy in Seattle to start the year 3-3.

Fortunately for the New England region’s collective mental health, things took a turn for the better after a week 7 overtime win against the Jets.  That game, which was yet another challenging victory, seemed to mark a turning point.  It launched a seven-game winning streak during which the Pats outscored their opponents by a combined 284-130.  The run included blowouts over the Rams, Colts, Jets, and most importantly, Texans.

Houston now returns to Foxboro to try and avenge its 42-14 drubbing, while New England is hoping for a repeat of that week 14 triumph.

Keys to victory

While Houston has talent all over the field, its attack begins with Arian Foster and the running game.  This is an area where the Patriots have improved significantly from 2011.  last year, the defense ranked 31st overall and against the pass, and 17th against the run.  In 2012, thanks to better play from the front seven and particularly the linebacking corps, the Pats are a top 10 defense against the rush, ranking 9th with just under 102 yards per game.  How the stop unit fares against Foster and company will go a long way toward determining the outcome this weekend, and the Pats must continue their strong play.  back in week 14, New England limited Foster and backup Ben Tate to 46 yards apiece, and fully half of Tate’s total came on one long run.  A similar performance will force the Houston offense to turn to Matt Schaub’s arm.

Unfortunately, making the Texans throw the ball doesn’t play to New England’s strength.  The 31st-ranked pass D from last year has improved only slightly, ranking 29th in 2012.  The secondary is still a work in progress, and the threats of wideout Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels, among others, should have Bill Belichick and the coaching staff very concerned.

New England Patriots tackle Arian Foster

The Patriots need a repeat of their win over Houston, controlling Arian Foster (23) and Andre Johnson (Getty/ Wickerham)

Johnson finished the year as the AFC’s most productive pass-catcher, falling just shy of 1,600 yards on 112 grabs.  Daniels shredded the Bengals on Saturday, snatching nine receptions for 91 yards and establishing himself as an integral part of the game-plan.  The Patriots have to figure out a way to shut down (or at least slow down) the Texans’ air attack.  In the Wild Card Round, the Texans manhandled Cincinnati; the 19-13 final score belied how lopsided that game really was.  Houston outgained the Bengals 420-198 and presented a balanced offensive game plan that led to 158 yards rushing and 252 through the air.  The combination of ball control and timely big plays spelled Cincy’s doom, and New England must learn from that.

Controlling the ground game and limiting the damage Johnson can do are obvious must-haves, but ultimately, this game comes down what Tom Brady and the New England offense can do against the AFC’s 7th-ranked defense.  The third, and perhaps most critical, key to victory is keeping Brady upright.

Standing a few feet away from the core of New England’s hopes and dreams will be J.J. Watt, arguably the best defensive player in the game and the NFL’s sack leader in 2012.  His 20.5 QB takedowns reflect the kind of havoc he can wreak in the backfield, and the Pats will need to gameplan a way to protect Brady in the pocket.  This will require several things.  The Pats must find a way to run against the league’s number seven rush D.  The run will set up play-action in additional to helping Brady’s vertical game be more effective.  That play-action could be critical in slowing down Watt and Houston’s overall defensive agressiveness.  And at the risk of stating the obvious, the stellar tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski will need to be major factors.

Predictions

The trouble with successfully prognosticating is that both teams have been inconsistent over the course of the season.  No team had a better start than did Houston, but the Texans’ reputation as the AFC’s strongest contender faded badly down the stretch.  Losers of three of their last four regular season games (three of five overall), the Texans will need to steady themselves this week.  Even the win over Cincinnati left room for doubt.

J.J. Watt Houston Texans

Controlling sack-master J.J. Watt, who took down Andy Dalton in the Wild Card Round, will be a vital part of New England’s gameplan (Getty/ Shea)

New England hasn’t been much better.  Taking into account he rocky start, the loss to the 49ers that ended their mid-season winning streak, and feeble victories over Miami and Jacksonville, the Pats haven’t exactly been clicking on all cylinders.  There’s been an alarming trend of late where they fall behind early and need to come roaring back in the second half.  It worked against the hapless Jag, but the rally failed at home versus San Fransisco.  If the pattern continues, it would be easy to see Houston stealing a road win.

However, considering all of the elements, the Pats have the advantage here.  Homefield and the cold weather certain to accompany it is the most obvious edge.  Beyond that, Houston’s pass defense (16th in the NFL) has been vulnerable this year and the Patriots’ offensive schemes are notorious for confusing and confounding defenses.  Tom Brady is no doubt still carrying a chip on his shoulder after last year’s Superbowl loss, and he has to know that his window of opportunity is closing.  As age creeps in, decline will follow.  How many more shots at the trophy will the future Hall of Famer have?

The rush defenses are about equal, and while the Texans have the better ground game, New England has become adept in using its players well.  Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and Shane Vereen have contributed in numberous ways and kept opponents guessing this year.  The Patriots actually totaled more rushing yards in 2012 than did the Texans (2,184 to 2,123). Plus, New England doesn’t need the run like Houston does.  With a far more dangerous passing attack, Andre Johnson notwithstanding, Brady has plenty of short-yardage options through the air should the rush falter.  His array of targets helped generate the number one offense in the NFL in 2012 with nearly 428 yards per game.

If Johnson was the most productive AFC receiver, New England’s Wes Welker was the most prolific, racking up 118 grabs.  He’ll continue to be a primary weapon, hopefully freeing up the tight ends in the middle of the field.  In the end, expect New England to emerge with a hard-fought and physical win.  Let’s say something like 27-23.

After all, this season practically demands a Brady-Manning rematch, doesn’t it?  the league and the media alike are salivating over the possibility of seeing the AFC’s most valuable player and comeback player of the year take his new team into an AFC Championship against the guy who may be the best all-around QB in the game.  New England hasn’t always fared well at Mile High, and the lead-in to that matchup would be a sportswriter’s dream.

Clearly there’s a lot of work to be done before it comes to fruition.  But the Pats have proven they can beat the Texans.  All they need now (easier said than done) is to repeat that feat.

To close with some pleasant statistical symmetry (because who doesn’t love that), both New England and Houston allowed an average of 20.7 points per game this year.

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